A History of The Gothique Film Society

by Dave Simpson

 

The Gothique Film Society is a specialised club for horror and fantasy enthusiasts, quite possibly the longest running specialist film society in the UK. It evolved out of genre fanzine Gothique, created in 1965 by an editorial collective comprising Stan Nicholls, Jean Dempsey, David Griffiths, Ernest Harris and David Stokes (and which continued for 10 issues until March 1970, with a 20th anniversary special being published in July 1985). One of the contributing writers and artists was Robin James, who, in 1966, founded the Gothique Film Society with Jim Kearley. Apart from allowing use of the name “Gothique”, and contributing artwork and programme notes for some of the early shows, Gothique magazine had little involvement with the film society.

Robin and Jim were a true ‘dream team’, able to utilise Robin’s extensive knowledge of the horror and fantasy genres and contacts in the world of 16mm film, and Jim’s long experience in organising and running film societies.

 

The society’s first meeting was held in September 1966 in the basement cinema at the London School of Film Technique (now the London Film School) in Shelton Street, Covent Garden. A modest audience of about 20 enthusiasts watched Son of Kong.

 

By sheer optimism, a lot of perseverance and positive word of mouth, membership steadily increased. It was very soon evident that a larger auditorium was required, and one was found in the hall on the top floor of Holborn Library, Theobalds Road, WC1. This is where the Gothique came into its own and presented some of its finest double bills of horror classics. Two of the first honorary Presidents were actor Christopher Lee and legendary Hammer director Terence Fisher, who both made regular visits, as did many other stars and personalities.

 

The Gothique’ seasons were hugely enhanced from January 1970, when Yeovil born, but New York based film writer, scholar and collector William K. Everson presented a show during his seasonal visit to London. He continued presenting his Christmas shows right up until shortly before his death in 1996. Especially in the pre-video days his shows, in which he introduced films from his extensive collection or rare prints borrowed from other US collectors, were the highlight of each season.

 

The other outstanding Gothique supporter and President was entertainer and comedian Bob Monkhouse, who first attended in March 1968 when he heard, from screenwriter Robert Muller (Billie Whitelaw’s husband) that The Raven (1935) was being shown. In spite of Fridays being the busiest time on the after dinner circuit, where Bob was in high demand, he managed to fit in further personal visits and his introductory talks showed his incredible knowledge of, and love of, the cinema. He was also a very accomplished artist and he drew many of the covers for the society’s programme brochures. A renowned collector, he was also instrumental in helping to track down some of the obscure and rare films that have been shown over the years.

 

Over the years many people connected with the ‘Gothique’ genre have popped in. An early visitor, at the October 1972 show, was DJ Mike Raven, who, in a brief acting career, made a name for himself as a sinister presence in Lust for a Vampire, I, Monster, Crucible of Terror (all 1971) and Disciple of Death (1972).

 

After the first few seasons the society fell into something very similar to its current pattern, with, at that time, shows running from October to April. A rare foray away from the Library Hall was a social evening, held on Saturday 17 March 1973 at the Barley Mow, Horseferry Road, SW1. My principal memory of that evening is being part of a quiz team, comprising young newcomers (I was then just 20), that was annihilated by a team of film enthusiasts of, shall we say, rather longer standing!

 

Due to work commitments, Christopher Lee resigned as a president in 1975. He was replaced by horror director and legendary cameraman Freddie Francis.

 

The society’s tenth anniversary was celebrated in appropriate fashion, if not a little early, on Friday 27 February 1976 at Holborn Library Hall. This was a separate occasion, not part of that season’s programme; the only film entertainment was the compilation Monsters We’ve Known and Loved. The many guests included Gothique Presidents Terence Fisher and Freddie Francis, actors Susan Hampshire, Nicky Henson, Jenny Runacre, Ingrid Pitt, Derek Francis and Dave Prowse, film historian John Huntley and genre historian, and Gothique regular, Denis Gifford. A highlight of the evening was a quiz between mixed teams of celebrities and members – and this time I was on the winning side!

 

During Season 13, on 27 April 1979, a new initiative, “Members’ Choice” was tested. Clive Bennett and I were given the opportunity to select the films and prepare the programme notes. In those pre-video days we were anxious to show something we hadn’t seen, so we presented “Two Corman Classics”: Dementia 13 and The Beast With a Million Eyes. Unfortunately, these are (of course) anything but classics – and after a rather more sensible “Members’ Choice” (Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People and The Leopard Man, chosen by author Stephen Jones) the following season Robin has never been brave enough to repeat this experiment!

 

Mention should also be made of Kim Newman, who joined the Gothique as a university student and was the one amongst us young fans who achieved his dream of forging a career in the movie business. He is now, of course, a renowned critic, author and media personality, but still pops in from time to time.

 

Freddie Francis resigned as a President after Season 13 (1978-79) and we sadly lost Terence Fisher a short while later, when he died on 18 June 1980. Season 15 (1980-81) was dedicated to him, with a special tribute screening on 5 December 1980 of Dracula and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell.

 

As Season 19 (1984-85) approached the Gothique reached another of its periodic ‘make or break’ moments, with declining attendances quite a concern. In response, and with attendances especially poor for the April shows, the decision was made to reduce the number of shows from nine to (usually) seven, with future seasons running from October to March. As it was, that season kicked off in fine style with an evening with special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen.

 

For the Gothique’s 20th anniversary season (1985-86), Bob Monkhouse penned a personal note for the programme booklet explaining his life-long fascination with the macabre and how, influenced in equal measure by Boris Karloff and the Marx Brothers, he fell into comedy, rather than horror, since telling jokes came easiest to him!

 

In 1986 Robin was pleased to announce the Gothique had won two awards, gold and silver, from the British Federation of Film Societies, for its contribution to the film society movement. The awards were handed out at a ceremony at the National Film Theatre.

 

During Season 27 (1992-93) a potentially fatal blow was struck when, in March 1993, it was announced that the Library Hall was to close, to be transformed into office space. The hunt was on for alternative premises, ideally in the same central area and, even more importantly, at a reasonable rate. Fortunately, with the assistance of the Holborn Film Society, a new home was found just around the corner, in the Brockway Room at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, WC1. The Hall opened in 1929 and is owned by humanist organisation South Place Ethical Society.

 

Unlike at the Library Hall there is no separate projection box. Siting the projectors in the body of the room allowed another of the Gothique’s stalwarts, Roger Townsend, to take a more visible role. Roger was our trusty projectionist pretty much from the beginning (Jim projected the very early shows) but, hidden away in the projection box at the Library Hall he was well nigh invisible. At last he could be a part of the crowd!

 

The move to Conway Hall also saw David Smith join the team to organise the interval refreshments. For some years at the Library Hall my late wife Diane had undertaken this most important of duties, but David stepped in as part of the move. He supplied members with coffee and biscuits until March 2015, when private caterers were appointed and we were unable to offer our own refreshments.

 

Despite settling in reasonably well at Conway Hall, Robin has always hoped that another venue, especially one better designed for cinema use, might be found. And, for Season 30 (1995-96) he found it in the Crown Preview Theatre, 86 Wardour Street, W1. This splendid mini-cinema had 16mm, 35mm and large screen video facilities and appeared to be ideal. At last, as Robin put it at the time, the Gothique was moving upmarket!

 

But it was not to be. Following a preview screening on 26 May 1995, Season 30 started as planned – and then it was announced that the Crown would be closing on 15 December! Fortunately Conway Hall was still available so, from January 1996 the society moved back into the Brockway Room, where it has remained ever since.

 

1996 also brought forth a double dose of sad news, with the death of Bill Everson on 14 April and Jim Kearley’s increasing incapacity, due to illness, preventing him from continuing with the society. Season 31 (1996-97) was dedicated to Bill; the situation was especially poignant as it was Jim who had introduced Bill to the Gothique.

 

Season 33 (1998-99) heralded a technological revolution, with the introduction of large-screen video.  This had been inevitable; the sources for 16mm prints were becoming scarcer, and so much rare material was available in the digital format.  Not everyone was pleased, of course, and Robin was keen to reassure members that 16mm would still be the first choice, and video would be used sparingly.

 

Following his long illness, Jim Kearley died in early 2000. Season 35 (2000-01) was dedicated to him. We also lost genre historian, and Gothique regular, Denis Gifford the same year.

 

On a brighter note that year, actress Janina Faye was interviewed by archivist and film historian John Huntley in connection with a screening of Never Take Sweets from a Stranger. Also on that bill was Green Fingers, a short film directed by Gothique member Paul Cotgrove. Other guest appearances in recent years have included actress Valerie Leon, interviewed by John Huntley when Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb was screened during Season 34 (1999-2000), screenwriter David MacGillivray (Frightmare, screened during Season 36 [2001-02]) and actresses Vera Day, for a screening of Woman Eater during Season 38 (2003-04) and Muriel Pavlow for The Shop at Sly Corner, shown during Season 43 (2008-09).

Gothique Janina Faye

Janina Faye interviewed by archivist and film historian John Huntley

 

Gothique Valerie Leon

Valerie Leon interviewed by John Huntley

 

Gothique David McGillivray

David MacGillivray

 

Gothique Muriel Pavlow

Muriel Pavlow

 

Back in 2003, we sadly lost John Huntley in the August, followed by Bob Monkhouse in the December. Both men were fervent supporters of the Gothique, but it is impossible, in particular, to over-state Bob’s contribution; we can only hope he is looking down as the society he supported, pretty much from the beginning, marches on towards its fifth decade.

 

Yet another stalwart member, Richard Batten, decided to call it a day during 2007. He had answered a call, way back in 1972, for someone to write the programme notes. His first were for Count Dracula in November 1972, during Season 7, and he continued until the end of Season 41 in March 2007!  Roger Townsend who, due to increasing ill health, was doing less and less of the projection work, took over the notes for Season 42, after which I was pleased to offer my services. I only hope I can follow Richard in compiling them for 35 seasons!

 

Sadly in April 2012 Roger’s increasing frailty finally took its toll and he passed away. Fittingly, for someone who devoted a large amount of his life to the Gothique, he had at least managed to attend many of the shows in the season that had only just ended.  He will be sorely missed; the following season was dedicated to him.

 

Season 47 (2012-2013) marked the end of 16mm shows. Only one had been scheduled, in December, but that had to be cancelled (it was replaced by an all-DVD show).  However, Conway Hall had acquired new (portable) sound equipment and front and rear wall-mounted speakers had been permanently installed in the Brockway Room.  This substantially enhances the projection of DVDs and, indeed, provides the best visual and sound quality we have had for many years.  So the move to wholly DVD, while unfortunate from a film purist point of view, has actually enhanced the viewing experience.

 

On Saturday 3rd October 2015, as a prelude to our 50th season, a special celebratory event was held at London’s iconic Cinema Museum. In true Gothique tradition, two double bills were presented, with each film being introduced by a special guest. In the afternoon, Murders in the Zoo (1932) was introduced by member Neil Pettigrew, author of ‘Lionel Atwill: The Exquisite Villain’, a biography about our favourite mad scientist who, of course, starred in the film as an insanely jealous zoo proprietor. Neil also delivered a 30 minute illustrated talk about this wonderful actor. The afternoon’s second feature was Satan’s Slave (1976), introduced by its director, Norman J. Warren. In the evening, author, critic and broadcaster Kim Newman introduced I Love a Mystery (1945), the first film he saw at the Gothique, back in 1977. Then director Paul Cotgrove introduced  Green Fingers (1999). That horror short co-starred Janina Faye, who was also with us to introduce  the restored version of Hammer’s Dracula (1958) in which she played young Tania. It was a wonderful occasion, with members adding to the event: Selene Paxton-Brooks designed and printed special commemorative t-shirts, Mark Williams brought along some of his astonishing models, including a life-size Frankenstein’s monster and a vampiress in a coffin, and Darrell Buxton signed copies of ‘Dead or Alive’, a compendium of reviews of 80s British horror films. A special presentation was made to co-founder Robin James of a wonderfully ‘gothic’ celebratory clock, sculpted by member Arthur Payn. Our grateful thanks go to Martin Humphries and his team of volunteers at the Cinema Museum, especially chief projectionist Dave Locke, for ensuring this was a fitting celebration of 50 years of the Gothique Film Society.

 

Still one of the few specialised film clubs in Great Britain, the Gothique Film Society is thriving, with no plans to slow down. New members are always welcome, thereby keeping the cinema of fantasy, mystery and horror alive. The philosophy of the Gothique has always been that every film should be judged on its own merits. People should make up their own minds. So please do join us!

 

For further details please contact:

david.simpson399@btinternet.com

j_s_davies@hotmail.com

or

Robin James, 75 Burns Ave., Feltham, Middlesex, TW14 9LX

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